It was 2006 when I got a sudden bug up my ass to take up serious-business capital-C Cycling. My dad had been a serious-business cyclist back in his younger days, in the early 1970s, before an accident involving a pickup truck plowing into his training paceline killed one rider and injured several more, putting yours truly’s old man-to-be into a two-week coma, which might have been a mercy given that his right femur and left radius and ulna were all badly fractured.
But even after that, he was a dedicated bicycle commuter and racing enthusiast. As a family, we watched the Tour de France before it was on the USA’s radar, back when all the coverage we got in this country was a 20-minute special on Wide World of Sports; before Greg LeMond won in ‘86, and of course well fucking before Lance Armstrong’s freakish dynasty turned the whole thing huge and weird.
So cycling was on the map, let’s say. But I went all of high school and college without riding a bike, with one strange exception involving an inexplicable decisions to pedal around the block on my mom’s mountain bike, possibly just to prove I hadn’t forgotten to ride, ultimately marveling at how thin and light and tenuous the experience was compared with the motorcycles on which I’d commuted for years.
And I couldn’t tell you what it was that set the wheels turning, but a few years out of college, during a year-long exile in the frozen north: I decided to build and ride a high-performance bicycle, in a serious fashion, and ultimately did exactly that. I’ve never been a particularly tool-inclined person; I have the basic low-level discomfort and intimidation with wrenching and grease and grunting common to many white-collar, smooth-palmed guys. But by god I built my bike up from parts, including lacing and truing my own wheels, and the only instance wherein I took it to a shop for maintenance was when I lacked the actual time to do the work myself, and needed it done quickly1. Just that one time.
Which is all not by way of bragging. I explain this only to convey that for some reason, when it came to cycling, I was motivated to exceed my comfort level.
This motivation turned out to be very important, because upon the completion of my bicycle (“Buster the Wonder Bike”) my father—an incredibly smart guy, way smarter than yours truly, but nonetheless not really the glib, nugget-of-wisdom type—took the opportunity to give me a nugget of wisdom which rang as true as anything anybody has ever said to me.
“Cycling is about suffering,” he said.
It’s easy to lose track of what’s actually going on in cycling, given the sheen of lycra and the hum of carbon-fiber wheels and the casual detached élan of wraparound shades. It is not just an endurance sport; it is the endurance sport. A bicycle is a monstrously efficient tool for converting muscle power into speed. This is why a person on a bicycle is so much faster than a person on foot. But to accomplish this, the machine distills and focuses the body into an engine, and with inefficiencies thus stripped away it becomes that much easier to run into the hard upper limits of what that engine is capable of.
And surrounding those limits is pain—pain of a surprisingly wide variety. The dull ache of sore knees, the sizzling deep-core chemical burn of muscles pushed past the lactate threshold, the sandbag-stiff grinding of legs ordered to pedal for hours. The cramped and squinty boredom of tens and hundreds of miles. Constant suffering. It is called “endurance” because one endures.
They say the original dopers took drugs not to go faster, but to deal with the pain, which might sound absurd but which I can say—having suffered—is totally plausible. Truly fast riders develop a baseline ability to go fast without hurting, such that they only really suffer when the afterburners come on, up the climb or the second climb or the fifth climb of the day, or in the time trial or at that final desperate sprint. But everybody suffers eventually.
I don’t race, and even if I did, I will never be one of the fast guys. My old man was a fast guy; he did a century in under five hours even before he hit his conditioning peak, which means he averaged better than 20 MPH for 100 miles. My century time, by comparison, lingers around the high six hours. But while there are things you can only see from the top, there are also things even a hack rider knows. I know what it is to suffer for hours, to grind up a climb in 100 degree weather with your blood turned to low-pH solvent and the sweat stinging your eyes, to freeze your calves numb when you decide that blowing snow be damned you have to get out and ride.
With my modest reputation as a bike guy, people ask me about it. What kind of bike should I get, they ask. Is it fun.
I never know what to tell them, so I tell them what my father told me.
- The repair in question was the replacement of a spoke that snapped with a sharp and musical ping as I was grinding through heavy uphill traffic in Kaimuki, Honolulu, HI. I was working as a bicycle courier at the time, and needed good old Buster to be rideable the next day. ↑